We must review our mental health policies, says KCLSU President Sebastiaan Debrouwere.
I have a view, arguably an idealistic one, of what the university experience should and should not be. University should be a transformative experience, in which students meet new friends and discover new skills. University should be a challenging experience, where we discover and overcome our personal limits. It is, and should be, a seismic shift in the personal lives of millions of young people across the country.
But university should never be a living hell for those students; and all too often, it is. Research by the National Union of Students earlier this year found that almost every university student experiences mental distress in the course of their degree, and that a staggering 20 percent of students consider themselves to have a mental health issue. Nearly three quarters of those said they experienced severe distress once a month or more, and almost a third said they suffered from it every single week.
Yet counsellors across the country see only between three and ten per cent of the student population each year. Only a quarter of students feel comfortable enough to tell others that they have experienced, or are experiencing, mental health problems. Our students feel alone, misunderstood, and abandoned. Not because our counsellors don’t care – believe me, they’re first class professionals with hearts of gold – but because there are simply too few provisions for help and too many needless, stress-inducing barriers for our students.
Universities must recognise that providing mental health support is not just a key priority, but also an obligation towards their students. Unions like KCLSU must campaign hard to eradicate the anomalies in the current approach. This academic year, we want to work on four projects that will yield long-lasting change regarding welfare.
Firstly, we’ll look into rolling out mental health ‘first aid’ training at KCLSU to ensure staff are aware of the issues that may affect students, and how they can recognise signs that someone may need help.
Secondly, we’re working hard to make sure that all personal tutors are trained to provide good assistance to students in need, so they can be an optimal first port of call.
Thirdly, we want to work with the College to review the ‘Fit to Sit’ policy. Research across the country shows that these policies can be discriminatory against students facing mental health difficulties, and we know from the many appeals that the current policy is not sufficient. This review will fit into a wider project to improve the mitigating circumstances policy.
Finally, I’ve been working with the Counselling Service and a number of student groups on a year-long project that was set out in my manifesto last March: the setting up of a College-wide peers support scheme, where students can go for help, a refreshing chat or just to let off some steam when it all gets too much.
The MSA currently runs such a scheme very successfully, and I firmly believe that we must work with them, and based on their success and expertise, make this available to all students. For that, we’ll look into funding, training and welfare support for the individual advisors.
We’re all human, so sometimes we will come across a rough patch on the road. But right now, mental health difficulties are too often ignored, or help is not provided. What is really needed is a university system that cares for its students. Anthony, Areeb, Liam and I will fight for it this year – will you join us?